CHICAGO — Chicago, the last big American city to require water pipes made of brain-damaging lead, is now the last one beginning to rip toxic pipes out of the ground.
Under plans shared Wednesday with the Chicago Tribune, the Department of Water Management envisions a long and costly effort to protect Chicagoans from a widespread public health threat that remained largely hidden for decades.
Initial work will be modest compared with the scope of the dangers. Next year the city estimates it will replace only 750 of the roughly 400,000 lead service lines connecting homes to street mains, according to slides prepared by the water department.
Yet the new program from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is the latest example of a shifting mindset at City Hall, where mayors and aldermen resisted changes to Chicago’s plumbing code until Congress outlawed lead water pipes in 1986.
Former city officials — up to and including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whom Lightfoot succeeded — also denied for years that anyone could be harmed just by drawing a glass of water from their household faucet.
“It’s great that Mayor Lightfoot has done what none of her predecessors had the courage to do, which is to acknowledge the problem,” said Miguel del Toral, a retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who played a key role in identifying similar threats in Flint, Michigan, and East Chicago, Indiana.
Chicago by far has more lead service lines than any other city. Detroit, with the second most, has about 125,000.
Ingesting tiny concentrations of the metal can permanently damage the developing brains of children and contribute to heart disease, kidney failure and other health problems later in life. In 2018, researchers estimated more than 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are linked to lead exposure.
Like other cities that already are replacing lead service lines, Chicago will rely on federal grants and low-interest loans to finance its work.
Most of the $19 million earmarked for next year will be spent in low-income neighborhoods where children also are endangered by dust from lead-based paint — still the largest source of exposure. The water service line will be replaced in 600 homes with high lead levels, some of which were identified through free testing kits distributed by the city.
To assess what likely will become a routine construction project, the Lightfoot administration will separately pick one city block where every lead service line is replaced while crews dig up the street to install a new water main.
“We know there will be some things we need to do differently in Chicago than they have done in other cities,” Andrea Cheng, an assistant water commissioner, said in an interview. “We need to work on our coordination with other utilities. We are going to need a lot of public outreach. Learning how it all works on this one block will inform our bigger program in the future.”
Coordinating the replacement of service lines and water mains would make the work more cost-effective. It also would end a city practice that likely exposed Chicagoans to high levels of lead in their tap water during the past decade.
Studies by del Toral and others have found that when service lines are jostled by street work or plumbing repairs, spikes of lead can intermittently flow out of household taps for weeks or months afterward.
The city dug up scores of streets under Emanuel as the former mayor sped up the replacement of aging, often-leaky water mains. City workers also installed dozens of meters to conserve the considerable-but-limited supply of water Chicago is allowed to draw from Lake Michigan — work that Lightfoot paused last year after the city confirmed it triggered high lead levels.
Emanuel secured more than $475 million in low-interest loans for the projects and doubled water rates to pay off the debt. But Emanuel — and until recently Lightfoot — didn’t apply for money to replace lead service lines.
Even now, city crews are attaching old, toxic pipes to new water mains before filling in trenches and repaving streets. Lightfoot’s new plan does not address what should be done on streets where the water main already has been replaced.
Others have suggested requiring service line replacement when a property is sold. Some cities loan residents money at low or zero interest to replace their service line, with payments invested to finance new projects.
“This problem is only going to be solved by everyone chipping in,” del Toral said. “I think most fair-minded people would agree.”
For homeowners willing and able to pay for a new service line, Lightfoot is asking City Council to waive costly permit fees.
There is no federal standard for the amount of lead in tap water from individual homes. Utilities are considered to be in compliance with EPA regulations as long as 90% of the homes tested have lead levels below 15 parts per billion, a standard the EPA set nearly three decades ago because the agency thought it could be met with corrosion-inhibiting chemicals.
Chicago conducts this type of testing in just 50 homes every three years — the minimum required. Most are owned by water department employees or retirees living on the Far Northwest and Far Southwest sides, where cases of lead poisoning are rare.
By contrast, results from the city’s free testing kits show lead-contaminated water has been found in at least one home in all 77 community areas.
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